Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The nose knows...

All of the senses are implicated in the sin of Adam: "The woman saw that the tree was good..." "And she took of its fruit and ate..." "And they heard..." (Gen. 3:6-8).

Sight, touch, taste, and hearing - our senses that allow us to interact with the world around us, now damaged - blemished as a result of the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

The one exception is the sense of smell. Smell was not damaged in the original sin; as a result, the sense of smell is still entirely spiritual - the soul alone benefits from it, not the body (This is demonstrated to a degree in our actual physiology. The other sensory organs have exceedingly complex processing systems that enable the brain to process the information being received on the surface. These processes go through a number of filters before they actually reach any of the particular parts of the brain that they are associated with. Smell, however, goes through a comparatively much simpler process via the olfactory bulbs that are located very close to the actual brain. In a superficial way, we can say that the nasal/olfactory system is a direct line to the brain - an apropos description when we consider that the seat of the soul is the brain, and that for Adam, God breathed "nishmat chaim" through his nostrils...).

There is a Talmudic debate regarding the requirement for one to make a blessing on pleasant smells. At first glance, this question is mystifying: we have a general rule that one cannot derive pleasure or benefit from anything in this world without making a blessing on it. Why then, should pleasing smells be excluded from this generalization?

Blessings serve the function of birur, separating the pure elements from the damaged parts. Without that discriminatory function, one would not be able to properly utilize anything, as can even be seen in the physical world. The body takes the necessary nutrients from food, assimilating it into the actual system; excess and waste materials are soon ejected from the system to ensure the continued functioning of the organism. So too in a spiritual sense the blessings extract the untouched unblemished parts of the physical world and leave the bad. Objects that we use, foods that we eat, pleasing sights, etc. all require blessings to properly separate the good from the bad.

Because smell is completely spiritual, one can easily assume that this birur process is unnecessary - and in theory that would be the case. But because the sources of pleasing smells are often physical objects that are subject to this primordial contamination, some element of this separation is in fact required.

Adapted from B'nei Yissaschar. Any mistakes are mine alone, a product of my haste and carelessness.

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